The Life and Struggles of Refugees Finally Gets Some Recognition in “The Swimmers”

Almost eight years after finding refuge, the Mardini sisters make international headlines once again


Photo Courtesy: IMDb

“The Swimmers” official movie poster.

  Coming in at number four globally for the most streamed movie this month on Netflix, “The Swimmers” sheds light on the refugee journey of two teenage girls. It is based on the true story of two sisters, Sara and Yusra Mardini, played by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, who swam partially across the Aegean Sea in search of a safer life for themselves and their family. The 135-minute play time was a bit overdone with the plot focusing on two major stories: the journey from Damascus, Syria to Berlin, Germany, and Yusra’s swim career. 

  The first half of the movie was really well done. Sally El Hosaini, the director of “The Swimmers,” opens the movie with life in Damascus. The Mardini sisters had a normal childhood, one with parties, pool days and swimming practice, until the Civil War intensified in 2015. El Hosaini effectively displays how quickly Syria was turned upside down as bombs begin to explode, guns shots are regularly heard and soldiers guard the streets. It wasn’t until the local death toll started dramatically increasing and the Mardini family was faced with a bomb attack at one of Yusra’s swim races that their family was convinced to let the young sisters escape their war-torn home with their cousin Nizar, played by Ahmed Malek.

The moment the bomb enters Yusra’s swimming lane is a pivotal point for the Mardini family because this is when they decide to let their daughters travel across the world in search of refuge. Photo Courtesy: Daily Mail

  The three embark on a journey full of sketchy encounters and deals, long bus rides, hours in the back of trucks, illegally crossing borders, hiding from the police and the most prominent, a boat ride across the Aegean Sea. The movie really captures the audience’s attention when the cousins see the dinghy that they, and 17 other refugees, are supposed to board to make it to Lesvos, Greece. Expectedly, something goes wrong; in the middle of the night, the engine fails and they are stranded, throwing all of their belongings into the ocean to keep the boat afloat. The sisters jump in the choppy water, lessening the weight of the boat and helping guide the boat to land. As a member of the audience, it feels as though we are transferred to that boat, stranded and at a loss for hope, however, it wasn’t really clear how long or far the sisters swam since the scene lasted a mere four minutes, including time spent dreaming about watching the sunrise. 

  Once they reach land, the group encounters several other obstacles to overcome but they eventually make it to Hungary. Meanwhile, over one million refugees, primarily from Syria, have begun a trek to Germany. The cousins consider joining the walk until they hear of German buses that will take them to refugee camps. The movie causes the audience to feel great appreciation for Germany’s kindness during this time of war as they not only accept but help refugees make it to safety. 

Sara and Yusra Mardini selflessly jump out of the unfit dinghy to save the other refugees they are traveling with. They swim for the rest of the night. (Photo Courtesy: The Guardian)

  In order to reunite with their family in Germany, the Mardini sisters must wait for their paperwork to be approved, which can take months to over a year. As they wait, they stay in a refugee camp with hundreds of people like themselves, however, with past national swim experience, the sisters are able to differentiate themselves. 

  From here, the movie follows Yusra’s swim career, practicing for the 2016 Olympics. She struggles to leave her home and dream behind and grapples with the idea of possibly joining the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team. Throughout the movie, Yusra learns to handle finding a new identity apart from Syria. She busies herself by constantly working on her swimming skills, trying to qualify for the Olympics.

  I feel as though El Hosaini left the audience with some unanswered questions. Sara, who never had the same passion for swimming, considered different options for her life in Europe. Although between the sisters, Yusra is the one who was able to get their story international attention, the director should have provided a bit more detail about Sara’s life. Also, the audience never knows what happens to their cousin, Nizar, after he had expressed anger with having little to do in Germany without his papers or anything to distinguish him in any way. 

  I thought that it is extremely important to note that the sisters’ family back in Syria was not able to reunite with Sara and Yusra by way of a family reunion. Instead, they had to take the same journey on a boat to reach safety. 

  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The audience really gains a deeper understanding of what it can be like as a refugee. At some points, you feel as though you are the one frantically dumping water off the dinghy to stay alive. At other times, the movie seems to use an awkward, uplifting soundtrack, primarily featuring the artist Sia, that doesn’t seem to fit the true story that is Sara and Yusra Mardini’s life. Although the screen time for the movie is longer than average, there never seems to be a dull moment for the sisters.

(L-R) Sara Mardini, Manal Issa (actress), Nathalie Issa (actress) and Yusra Mardini meet each other at the premiere of “The Swimmers.” (Photo Courtesy: Getty Images)